[John Vilardi is a recent graduate of Slippery Rock?University?and an Athletic Development Intern at Athletic Lab]
mask1

This guy looks like a badass. You? You just like an ass.

Oxygen deprivation masks, or high altitude simulator masks, started growing in popularity within the past couple years. The intent is to provide the user with a relatively inexpensive way of adapting the ?live low-train high? concept which is supposed to increase Erythropoietin levels (EPO). EPO is important in endurance athletes because it is the glycoprotein hormone that controls erythropoiesis (red blood cell production), and more red blood cells (but not too much ? too much makes the blood too viscous and can cause strokes and heart failure) means a greater capability to deliver oxygen to muscles, therefore the athlete does not fatigue as fast (this is the reason that endurance athletes blood dope). The training mask also promises: Increased lung capacity, increased anaerobic thresholds, increased oxygen efficiency, increased energy production, increased mental and physical stamina, and increased mental focus. We now know what the mask promises via their website, now let?s dive into what research says about acute hypoxic training.

One of the first things I found when researching hypoxic training is the fact that acute and chronic hypoxia can actually lead to a decrease in mitochondria (Hoppeler et al., 2003). Mitochondria is the body?s only way of making energy utilizing oxygen, meaning, it is crucial for aerobic fitness.

Training or living in a prolonged hypoxic environment has also been found to overproduce HIF-1 (Gross et al., 2001), which is a protein that is capable of producing tumors that can metastasize in response to oxygen deprivation (can cause cancer).

Sure, acute muscle hypoxia has been found to be a beneficial side effect of training in endurance athletes, (however, prolonged hypoxia can actually be detrimental to muscle tissue) which sounds good for oxygen deprivation masks, right? Well, again, there have been little to no studies to show that the masks increase VO2 (aerobic fitness), or power production (anaerobic fitness) of any sort (Hoppeler et al., 2008) (Vogt et al., 2010).

The one area of the oxygen deprivation masks that I found that can be legitimate is its promise to increase lung capacity, and that is solely due to the fact that you are breathing under resistance, and your lungs, like any muscle in the body working under resistance, will respond and become stronger. But there is little to no science behind the mask increasing anaerobic or aerobic fitness (which is why you are using the mask in the first place, right??). The problem with live low-train high is there is not enough stimulation to increase EPO and have a significant impact on red blood cell production(Smart, 2012) (Roels et al., 2005). The only proven way to increase EPO (without cheating) is to live in a high altitude where the oxygen level in the air is lower than sea level oxygen.

I will leave you with a few challenges:

  1. Do some research before wasting money on the next fad that promises quick and easy improvements in fitness. Fitness does not work quick and easy. It takes time and effort.
  2. Be cautious and ask questions about products that are full of promises that sound too good to be true because chances are, they are too good to be true.

References:

  • Gross, T., Akeno, N., Clemens, T., Komarova, S., Srinivasan, S., Weimer, D., & Mayorov, S. (2001). Selected Contribution: Osteocytes upregulate HIF-1? in response to acute disuse and oxygen deprivation. Journal of Applied Physiology, 90(6), 2514-2519.
  • Hoppeler, H., Vogt, M., Weibel, E., & Fl?ck, M. (2003). Response of Skeletal Muscle Mitochondria to Hypoxia. Experimental Physiology, 109-119.
  • Hoppeler, H., Klossner, S., & Vogt, M. (2008). Training in hypoxia and its effects on skeletal muscle tissue. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 38-49.
  • Roels, B., Millet, G., Marcoux, C., Coste, O., Bentley, D., & Candau, R. (2005). Effects of Hypoxic Interval Training on Cycling Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 138-146.
  • Smart, N. (2012). ?Live High – Train Low? Altitude Training for Endurance Performance. J Athl Enhancement Journal of Athletic Enhancement.
  • Vogt, M., & Hoppeler, H. (2010). Is Hypoxia Training Good for Muscles and Exercise Performance? Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 525-533.